A Constitutionalist Perspective

The regular contributors on this site will be wrestling often with the question as to what it means to be a “constitutionalist” in our current politics. Constitutionalism was once much more emphasized by conservatives than by liberals. In fact, because an organization like our sponsor, the Jack Miller Center, commits itself in particular to fostering awareness of the Constitution, they were inevitably seen as conservative. In the age of Trump, that has all changed. Those who insist on the Constitution over and against a mere concern with political partisanship are often portrayed as liberals. Inevitably, because some of our contributors will be critical of Trump in one way or another from a constitutional perspective, we will be perceived as a “liberal” site.

But, as Greg Weiner will show in an article you should look for later in the week, this is truly an odd transformation. The conservative critique of progressivism had been that progressives were insufficiently constitutional insofar as they were more concerned with ends than with means and that they were insufficiently respectful of our constitutional traditions. Now, somehow those very same conservatives have embraced Trump—who is more progressive than the progressives on these same issues—as the means by which they can attack the progressives. Insisting on constitutionalism, over and against this illiberalism, is not liberal. It arises from the same kind of constitutional conservatism that at one time informed many in the Republican party.

I am not here suggesting that the Democratic party has become thoroughly constitutional in the way that some constitutional conservatives might have hoped. But, the dialectical nature of politics means, I suspect, that they have become more attentive to constitutional issues in the age of Trump. There is at least some solace in Trump’s consistently unconstitutional behavior if the long-lasting benefit is to bring more attention to the Constitution.

Also, for those of you who are now insisting that Trump has done nothing “unconstitutional,” I am working on a piece to be published sometime in the next couple of weeks about why “constitutional” means much more than merely legal and illegal behavior.  For instance, recklessly contesting an election with a series of rumors and theories might not be unconstitutional if we’re talking about legality; it is unconstitutional if we’re talking about the ways in which the Constitution both shapes and depends on certain norms of behavior that are conducive to the long term health of the regime. 

10 thoughts on “A Constitutionalist Perspective

    1. Thanks Alex! Always glad to hear from old students. Promote it to everyone you think might be interested!

      1. Can you please instruct me on how President Trump has acted unconstitutionally as you posting infers? I am unclear on this.

        You and your contributors have made this statement, however, there has never been any support.

        Simply disagreeing with the policies of a president or not liking his personality does not make his actions unconstitutional.

        Again, please educate me, with support, of the unconstitutional actions of the sitting president.

  1. I start to address that question here:

    One of the points of this site is that there’s more to being a constitutional regime than simply following the laws. Picture George Washington as the perfect example of what it means to be a constitutional President in the way it’s necessary for our constitutional order. Now picture Donald Trump. That’s not just a personality difference. That’s a fundamental difference in their entire bearing toward the regime and toward their responsibilities and duties as President. Being constitutional means more than just not breaking the law. It means fulfilling a set of behaviors and responsibilities for a president is individually responsible.

    1. I am not sure exactly what you are trying to say in your last statement: “It means fulfilling a set of behaviors and responsibilities for a president is individually responsible.” Articulately this makes no sense.

      Just because a president acts in a manner in which you disagree, does not make it unconstitutional. If this were the case there would be very few presidents who have acted constitutionally. (Again, this is based upon your premise and not mine nor the definition of constitutional.)

      We should be able to disagree. If a statement is made as fact, it should be easy to support as such. If a statement is made that cannot be supported, then it is simply opinion. You have not supported the majority of your statements, and thus they are simply opinions.

      It is your website, and not mine. You are entitled to have a site that is simply your opinion; but please do not state your opinion as simple facts that you either cannot or will not support.

      As an academic, you should understand that your voice as an authority in a subject matters precisely because of your training and expertise, grounded in the facts. Simple assertions not only degrade your academic integrity but also are dangerous to the health and sanctity of our Republic.

  2. I’m not sure at all what you mean by “facts?” I have presented reasonable arguments that I try to develop clearly, within a limited format. There is a dramatic difference between policy differences and constitutional behavior. Actually, if you look at the course of American history, I’d say all presidents, with the exception of Andrew Johnson, behaved constitutionally. They understood that there was a level of decorum with which they ought to behave. Presidents aren’t kings; but they do represent the sovereignty of the nation. As such, like kings they have always understood that they must behave in a certain manner. They understood that their behavior represents the nation over which they preside. Whatever you mean by “facts,” that is a fact. No president prior to Trump, except perhaps Andrew Johnson, has ever behaved like him. Again, that is not an assertion. It is a fact. Just as a King behaving badly is bad for a monarchy, so too a President behaving badly is bad for our regime. So that we’re clear, that last sentence is an assertion. It’s an assertion that points to a deeper and longer argument that obviously I’m not going to make in the comment box. Just because it’s an assertion doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
    I very much appreciate your engagement with this site. I have tried to show you respect and civility in my responses. I have no obligation to respond to your comments, but I feel that I should given your engagement. Your comments above about my “academic integrity” were rude and unjustified. I have not been rude to you and I don’t appreciate your rudeness in return. I realize that it’s easy to be rude because you’re just an anonymous “ME” who can say whatever you want without consequences. But that is not an excuse to become rude. It’s precisely because of my “academic integrity” that I’m willing to engage with you, just as I always try to engage with my students.

  3. Dr. Kleinerman,

    Your response to this dialogue appears hostile. You are defensive in your responses, though I do not see an attack but simply an attempt at interaction and discussion.

    I agree that the statements in your post are your opinion. I do not see facts here. Everyone has a right to their own opinion and the right to voice that opinion. Simply because you are an academic does not mean that all of your statements are fact.

    Although you thought the posting of “ME” as being rude, I disagree. An opinion was stated, to which you obviously disagree. I, however, do not disagree. This does not make my opinion wrong, nor your opinion correct, or vise versa. It simply means that we disagree.

    I, however, found your response hostile and disrespectful. I agree with the commenter that as an academic you should be held to a higher standard. If you and other academics are to put out opinions, they should be supported by clearly spoken facts and not simply other opinions.

    Your stance appears to be dogmatic and that the lay people need to accept your opinion as fact. I wholeheartedly disagree. I do not need to have an advanced degree in political science to have my own thoughts and beliefs.

    I have read the “Federalist Papers” several times, and do believe that I have an understanding of what our Founders wanted when they comprised the Constitution. Although it is not in political science, I too have an advanced degree. I do not appreciate being talked down too concerning these political issues.

    If you would like Biden to pardon Trump for his so called crimes to simply heal the Republic, then maybe you need to heed your own words and stop with your vitriolic comments against your commenters.

    1. Helpme222,

      I’m sorry but the question as to whether presidents behaved with more decorum than President Trump is not an opinion. It is simply a fact. Beyond that, I try in my articles to develop arguments that will be compelling and illuminating. I don’t think, however, that they’re mere opinion. A mere opinion is something stated without any argument to make it compelling or something about which an argument wouldn’t make sense. I like the color green and think it’s a great color. That’s a mere opinion. I’ve tried to make an argument as to the question whether Trump is anti-constitutional. You might, at the end of the day, disagree with my argument. But I’m not sure it’s enough if we’re trying to engage in a civil discussion to say that you disagree and leave it that. I’m sorry that you feel I was being disrespectful in my prior comment. I didn’t appreciate someone questioning my academic integrity. As you know if you’ve read The Federalist Papers, political discussion is about reasoned arguments. That I’m engaged in those reasoned arguments which leads me to a conclusion doesn’t take away my integrity.

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